Yesterday we visited the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. and learned a lot about indigenous people and their contributions. I’d like to share some themes that guide our learning as well as a few tips for visiting if you get the chance.

Sitting opposite the Capitol, the four-story museum undulates like the waves of water off a cliffside. The curved architecture gives the impression of a spiral or whirlpool and it’s a fitting monument to the natural inhabitants of this land.

We went on a Saturday morning and the free museum was not crowded. On weekends, street parking is typically easy to find. We parked right on Maryland Ave. next to the Capitol Reflecting Pool.

The museum covers the many nations that spanned both the North and South American continents. (I’ve talked to my children about how one could–and many do–view them as one continent.) There were several exhibits that we didn’t have time to view, but will plan to visit again to see.

During our visit, there were a few themes that we kept coming back to. As we learn more, I think we will continue to use these ideas to guide our understanding.

Indigenous people were/are diverse.

So often I see native nations portrayed in generic and historical-only contexts. It’s vital that we teach children that many people living today share indigenous heritage and that there isn’t a monolithic “native” culture. Each nation is unique.

The large display of flags in the rotunda is the first reminder to visitors of this fact. We talked about how there were many different people represented by those flags. We also looked at many maps that detailed the vast range of the various nations.

The fourth floor Our Universes exhibit highlights the differences among cultures. (There’s also an introductory film you can view.)

Indigenous people have made numerous scientific discoveries and completed complex engineering projects.

I was so inspired by the math, science and engineering on display! We marveled at the Inkan rope bridges, analyzed the construction of tipis, and learned about the physics of weight with the snowshoe. Science education must expand past Eurocentric discovery to truly teach children about their world.


Indigenous people have demonstrated how to conserve natural resources.

We saw countless examples of the connection between native peoples and their environment. The act of using all parts of an animal that was killed is a lesson for each of us. We saw animal teeth as adornments, seal gut made into a jacket, furs, skins, bones–everything used and nothing wasted.

In listening to some of the creation stories, we learned about the importance of land, sky, water, and animals. Care for the environment is a truly conservative act.

Indigenous people have infused meaning into their creative arts, rituals, and daily lives.

As we admired the beauty and craftsmanship of artifacts and articles of clothing, we also learned about significance. Many of these items hold special meaning and should not be thoughtlessly taken by outsiders simply because they are pretty.

While it is valuable to appreciate the aesthetics, we also understand that there are centuries of cultural knowledge behind appealing designs and useful objects.

Indigenous people have been treated unjustly.

The fourth floor exhibit on treaties offers a shameful glimpse of this. We have always talked about what happened to the people who already lived in America before it was ‘America.’ Some civilizations rose and fell long ago while others were ruthlessly removed from their land. It’s vital that we confront the truth of our history. I know that some believe that children shouldn’t be taught this; that we shouldn’t dwell on the mistakes of Great Men who lived long ago. But transferring blame to an abstract past only perpetuates injustice.

I really can’t recommend this museum enough. It’s a fantastic early introduction to native cultures, contributions, and history. This is a topic that we will continue to learn about.

You can get more logistical information, see a map and schedules of events, and learn about the inventive Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe on the National Museum of the American Indian website here.

What are some of the ways you’ve taught your child about indigenous nations?

1 Comment

  1. Lisa/SyncopatedMama

    I love that museum – isn’t the building itself just gorgeous! Have a super week!


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